G12 Adventures – Random musing #2: On a nudge influenced policy and its viability…

Cross-posting this from G12 Adventures blog which I am hosting this month -http://g12adventures.blogspot.com/2015/04/random-musing-2-on-nudge-influenced.html

(G12 Adventures is a blog that the Generation 12 cohort of the Asia Pacific Leadership Programme (APLP) of East West Centre, Hawai’i, initiated and it is hosted each month by one of the cohort members)

I read in a recent Sunday Times Sri Lanka edition about the proposed colour coding system on soft drinks. The authorities hope that system will encourage people to be more conscious of their sugar intake and thereby reducing high sugar levels observed among school children.

Why do I find this interesting? Because I have been reading Thaler and Sunstein’s book on Nudge for my behavioural public policy course under my current masters studies on social policy and development. And, I had been trying to think of examples where the Sri Lankan government might have used ‘nudge’ concepts to influence the public in a direction that they felt was beneficial for the well-being of the individuals.

When I read this article, I felt that this could be considered an example of a nudge. Where the policy does not force people to do something and the economic incentives are minimal but rather informs people of the choices and indicating their own preferred choice by the traffic light coding system on soft drink packaging.

Would this work as it is? The producers of soft drinks are going to be amongst the first to resist the coding system because a colour coding system does provide easily interpreted visual information for consumers and a rational human being would tend to keep away from the red coded food products in most instances. However, the more important question is: will consumers be ‘nudged’ into a more healthy choice in consumption simply by looking at the colour codes?

The key here would have to be the awareness campaign and to ensure that it becomes the latest trendy choice to opt for low sugar beverages. If there is a crowding out of soft drinks with high sugar content due to decline in consumption, then producers would start taking steps towards re-examining their soft drink production and possibly, reducing sugar content in their products.

So, it does look as if the proposal by the Health ministry is viable and could be effective if sufficient attention is paid to the awareness campaign.

However, this proposal assumes that the high intake of sugar content is from processed products purchased from the markets. It does not take into consideration the inclusion of sugar in home made products. According to an earlier Sunday Times article on sugar and salt consumption levels as a positive correlation to a rise in diabetes, heart disease, obesity etc., it quotes the Medical Research Institute chief as stating that 70% of salt consumption of the average Sri Lankan is from home-cooked products and only 20% from processed food. As a similar breakdown was not given for sugar intake in the article, one could perhaps assume that the same holds for sugar consumption until evidence indicates otherwise. Therefore, targeting only soft drinks and other processed food is not likely to drastically reduce the current statistics of high sugar levels.

What do you think of this proposal? Are there other pitfalls that the proposal is missing in its conceptualization? What can be added on to this proposal to make it more effective? Are there similar policies nudging people towards healthy consumption in your country?

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